Note: In celebration of the feast of St. Therese on Wednesday, October 1, the Kindle version of Trusting God with St. Therese is only $.99 until 8 AM Pacific Thursday. This may be the only time I run such a sale, so it’s a great opportunity to pick up a copy if you haven’t already.
St. Therese of Lisieux is one of the most popular saints in history. Almost immediately after her death, her little way of spiritual childhood began to spread. She was canonized less than thirty later and named a Doctor of the Church by Pope John Paul II.
St. Therese’s childhood
Marie-François-Therese Martin was born in Alençon, France in 1873. Her parents were Louis Martin and Marie-Azelie Guerin Martin. She was the youngest of their nine children, four of whom died before age six. Louis and Zelie were committed Catholics. They were standouts even in the Catholic subculture that had grown up in the larger, anti-Catholic culture of their place and time. Both had considered religious life before they met and married. Zelie was a successful businesswoman. Louis eventually sold his business to help with hers.
Therese was a talkative, happy, but spoiled child. She had a strong will, but everyone loved her. When Therese was four, Zelie was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer. She died before the year was over. “My happy disposition completely changed after Mama’s death,” Therese later wrote in her autobiography, Story of a Soul. She became shy and extremely sensitive.
The rest of Therese’s childhood was one struggle after another. Her sister Pauline became a substitute mother for her, but left to enter the Carmelite cloister when Therese was nine. Within months, Therese was seriously ill. She probably suffered from a form of post traumatic stress disorder, compounded by harassment from the devil. A favorite statue of the Blessed Virgin smiled at her, curing her completely.
Therese had problems relating to the other children at school. She had a slight setback in her health when her sister Marie also entered the cloister. She suffered from scruples. And when she made up her mind to enter the cloister herself before her fifteenth birthday, she was forced to delay.
The second miracle in her life was much more ordinary than the first. On Christmas Eve just before her fourteenth birthday, God completely cured her oversensitivity. In an instant, Therese grew up. This time there were no exterior signs, but a dramatic interior transformation.
Therese took her plea to enter Carmel early all the way to Pope Leo XIII. He told her she would enter, “if God wills it.” After what seemed like an eternity to her, the Bishop of Bayeux spoke with the superior of the Carmelites and gave his permission. She entered on April 9, 1888.
A Carmelite nun
Her sisters Pauline (now Sr. Agnes of Jesus) and Marie (Sr. Marie of the Sacred Heart), did not realize how much Therese had changed since they left home. Marie went so far as to oppose giving her permission to enter the cloister early. They both expected to continue mothering Therese. Therese had other ideas. She entered Carmel for love of Jesus, not to be with her sisters. She desired to follow the Carmelite Rule as closely as possible. She wanted no special treatment.
Less than a year later, their father Louis suffered a complete mental breakdown. Family members feared for his safety. They took him to a mental hospital in Cannes where he remained for two years. Therese only saw her beloved father once more, shortly after his return home. Confined to a wheelchair, he uttered only one phrase, “To Heaven!” He died in July 1894.
As Louis’ health declined, Therese turned more and more to God as her Father. During her father’s illness, a spiritual darkness descended upon her, which intensified as her own death grew closer. Weaned from both earthly and heavenly consolations, she looked for peace elsewhere. God led her to trust in His loving goodness in spite of her circumstances.
Many of the nuns in the convent had trying personalities. Therese volunteered for seven years to help a cranky older nun walk from the chapel to the refectory for dinner. When another sister made annoying sounds during their silent prayer time, Therese offered the noise to the Child Jesus as though it were a symphony for His pleasure. She befriended a nun whom most others avoided, seeking her out during recreation and forcing herself to be pleasant when she felt like doing the opposite.
When Agnes of Jesus was elected prioress, she made the former prioress novice mistress, as was the custom. Then she appointed Therese to be the assistant novice mistress. Therese was patient and persevering with the novices in her charge. She was gentle with their natural faults, but never tolerated laziness or excuses. She taught them that God was merciful. If they learned to trust Him completely, she said, they could go straight to Heaven, even if they had some sins of weakness that they were unable to overcome.
Her final illness
On the night after Holy Thursday prayers in 1896, Therese coughed up blood. This was the first clear sign she had tuberculosis. For the next year she hid her illness, continuing to work and pray with the other nuns. At last she opened up to the infirmarian. She was soon relieved of her chores and moved to the infirmary.
She suffered all through the summer of 1897. More than once the doctor declared she would not last through the night. But each time she rallied. Meanwhile, between coughing fits and excruciating pains, she joked with her sisters and the other nuns who visited her. She did her best to comfort them. They wrote down everything she said about her Little Way of Spiritual Childhood. These notes, added to the manuscript Story of a Soul that her superiors had ordered her to write, would later tell the world about God’s goodness and love.
Therese died on September 30, after an agony that lasted for hours. She told her sisters that she would continue working to save souls after her death. “I want to spend my Heaven doing good on earth,” she said. “I will send down a shower of roses.” It wasn’t long before reports of miracles due to her intercession began pouring in to the convent.
Happy feast of St. Therese! May you remain a little child before Our Lord always.